Friday, July 30, 2010

Mesrine: L'instinct de mort / L'ennemi public n°1

The subject of Jean-François Richet’s two-film biopic is the notorious French gangster, Jacques Mesrine: on his return from Algeria in 1959, he embarked on a life of crime – as mob henchman, bank robber, kidnapper and daring jail-breaker – that ended in a hail of police gunfire in the very public Place de Clichy in 1979.

His end was fitting. He was proud of his title of Public Enemy No.1 and increasingly sought media attention, giving brazen interviews and photo poses to Paris Match and La libération, writing a tell-all (and somewhat fictionalised) memoir (L'instinct de mort) whilst awaiting trial in prison, and happily playing the honourable gangster, man of the people and left-wing revolutionary to court popularity. He would no doubt have been delighted to see his life story so lavishly and lengthily mounted.

The length is a bit of a problem. The two films are in some ways distinct from one another: the first functions as a back story for the second, a growth narrative preceding a portrait, and technical aspects such as colour palette and shot design are varied between the two halves. They play together as one whole film perfectly adequately but the decision to split them was wise: taken as a four-hour entity, they contain a fatal amount of bombast, repetition and odd patches of empty space, but an equal lack of character.

Part of the problem of repetition stems simply from the facts of Mesrine’s life, a cycle of bank-robbing, imprisonment, escape, hiding out, another girlfriend, another accomplice etc. But there’s something wrong with the presentation when one’s heart sinks at yet another shoot-out with the police, presented with such lack of variety that they start to become indistinguishable. The fine and detailed production design, starry cast and handsome photography cannot hide the fact that the film’s construction and direction are resolutely pedestrian. Time and again, action sequences rely solely on basic fast, close shots, quick cutting and the thudding score to generate excitement; repeating the events of the opening credits (nifty split screens, at least) leading up to Mesrine’s death, the added tension built amongst the hiding policemen is a complete fake because we remember perfectly well how it goes; elsewhere, such as the first casino heist with his girlfriend Jeanne, the action sequences are so perfunctory that one wonders why they were even included.

A fatal lack of imagination permeates the films. Little in the film-making comes as a surprise, except occasionally the brazenness of the second-hand imagery: Mesrine’s Montreal apartment is shot like a night-time liquor commercial, and immediately followed by that old ground-level shot of autumn leaves in the courtyard of a mansion. Mesrine and Jeanne’s flight through Arizona starts with Monument Valley set to “Stand by Your Man” and proceeds to have them chased by a flotilla of cop cars down that long road. What could have been an eerie, fog-bound night-time murder is reduced to banality by insistent screaming and that thudding score again. When we cut to London, there’s a double-decker and “London Calling” on the soundtrack. Mesrine sings along to “Je ne regrette rien”; but it’s anyone’s guess why it segues into “Rapper’s Delight”, over Ludivine Sagnier’s jewellery shopping and pose-striking montage (as a petty point of annoyance, she should have taken out her tongue stud; also, why does he fly into a rage when his name is mispronounced, but let her get away with it?).

All the more shame, therefore, that a couple of scenes stand out: Mesrine has an amusingly parochial break-up with one of his bank-robbing partners as they make their getaway on an overground Metro train, and the sequence in which he is confined in naked isolation in a Quebecois maximum security facility achieves a decent surrealism through liberal use of the fish-eye and the sheer harshness of the sensory tortures he undergoes. The same prison is the site of one of the films’ most exciting sequences, but it’s due less to any distinction of direction or editing than to the simple fact that the real-life Mesrine’s escape was so outrageously brazen, from the yard, in broad daylight. The real Mesrine is both the films’ blessing and their curse. He was a charismatic individual, prone to rage and violence but good with children, a cold-blooded killer and an affable Robin Hood (“stealing from a bigger thief than myself”), writer of gushing love letters, a joker and an egotist, who cooked lapin chassuer for one of his kidnap victims, and welcomed the police inspector who hunts him down with a bottle of champagne and a cigar. The films wisely do not try to pin him down; one can only hope a brief, claustrophobic scene of violence and chaos in Algeria is not meant to be a summation of how his character formed; family unhappiness is suggested, along with lack of pride in his father, but it functions as psychological set-dressing, not an aspect of his personality to be pondered.

At the same time, however, no perspective is offered. Mesrine’s famed relationship with the press, for example, is presented solely from his point of view, and we get barely an inkling of what anyone else thinks about him. Mesrine was known as “the man of a thousand faces” for his fondness for disguise, but it describes also his preparedness to be in the eyes of others whatever he thought was to his best advantage. Vincent Cassel is a terrific, charismatic performer and he works hard, onscreen almost continually, but his portrait never quite gels. He plays supremely self-confident and can smooth-talk his way out of the stickiest situation, but his own appealing charisma is supplanted, replaced by Mesrine’s ersatz variety. He fully embodies the character, but Mesrine’s very changeability means we never really get to know him; the man we have here is contradictory and hypocritical rather than complex. Which may very well be true to life, but is deeply unsatisfactory presented as-is at the centre of a movie. Not only that, but his affability quickly loses its charm as he beats and kills his way through the film. Even less charming is his self-promotion, even in personal relationships. His principles of respect and loyalty lead to his viciously beating his wife; his left-wing ideology is transparently self-serving and contradictory; and he's a complete sociopath.

The late turning point in Mesrine’s career was his kidnapping of a journalist who had “besmirched” his name, whom he stripped, beat viciously and left for dead. With unassailable hubris, he sent polaroids to the press, and his reputation as a gangster with honour (we’re repeatedly told this rather than actually shown it), his self-made image as a sort of folk hero to the little man, were immediately shattered. One suspects, however, that the film-makers would prefer to see him as the Robin Hood figure who remains popular in the more crime-prone outer areas of Paris today; is activities are presented as glamourous and exciting, and part one ends with a suggestive title stating that the maximum security prison in Quebec was closed following Mesrine’s publicisation of its horrific conditions. Keeping judgment at arm’s length is all well and good, when it doesn’t look like the glorification of dubious subject. We are not invited to understand him, and are certainly unlikely to sympathise, but neither do we feel the uneasy horror or fascination that would at least be engaging.

So the films, taken singly or together, are adequately competent entertainment, but offer no illumination or insight into the man, his times or his notoriety. This is a prestige production, with everything in place to be mistaken for “important”. Not least of these elements is the impressive supporting cast, but they are almost universally wasted: they are caricatures who share screen time with Mesrine, not people, and with not one of them does he have a recognisably real relationship. Depardieu is obvious casting, but subdued, wearing pale shades and the easy real-life authority of his bulk and years to play Mesrine’s early mob-boss mentor (and his dispatch is poorly integrated, a perfunctory inclusion solely to explain his subsequent absence); Cécile de France simply has to look cool and composed (also helped by tinted glasses) but is given similarly little to do until her rather pedestrian telephone break-up scene; Sagnier just has to act the hip-swinging sexpot, predictably enough, though is compensated with a brief crying scene (and a nice and nasty guitar-line for her swishy entrance). Several of Mesrine’s accomplices pop up or disappear with neither warning nor a sense of personality (and the barest hint of homosexual undercurrent is left intriguingly untouched); only Mathieu Amalric, thanks to those googly eyes of his, manages to suggest an inner life (and one would have liked to have seen more of Olivier Gourmet’s Commissaire Broussard, thoughtful and smart behind a funny Amish chin curtain). The treatment of the cast is symptomatic of the production as a whole, aiming for self-important effect without imagination, and pretended objectivity without context, less an analytical study of times, character or circumstance than a two-dimensional homage to a monstrous individual.

d Jean-François Richet p Thomas Langmann sc Abdel Raouf Dafri ph Robert Gantz ed Hervé Schneid pd Emile Ghigo m Eloi Painchaud cast Vincet Cassel, Gérard Depardieu, Mathieu Amalric, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Roy Dupuis, Elena Anaya, Gérard Lanvain
(2009, Fr, 113 + 133m)
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